A gouge in the Earth more than a mile deep, 277 miles long, and 18 miles wide, the Grand Canyon is clearly visible from space but practically undetectable from anywhere in the plains or pine forest surrounding it until you emerge suddenly on the edge of the vast abyss. This precipitous chasm is a gorge of the Colorado River, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains and drains into the deserts, where it has carved through erodible sand and stone. Of the deep gorges that furrow the face of the Southwest's Canyon Country, the Grand Canyon is king of them all. Cutting a giant rift across a tectonic uplift on the already elevated landmass called the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Canyon exposes eons of geologic history, including some of the oldest rocks on Earth. It is one of seven natural wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a jewel of the U.S. national park system.
At a maximum of 6,093 vertical feet (1,857 meters) from rim to river, the Grand Canyon is not the world's deepest canyon by official measurements. It is the most dramatic: While other record-holding canyons are defined by mountaintop to valley bottom slopes, the Grand Canyon is starkly defined by a relatively flat rim that suddenly falls away in tiers of vertical cliffs.
A place revered since antiquity, these rock walls house countless Native American artifacts and places still held sacred by indigenous cultures. Europeans first saw the canyon in 1540 during Spanish exploration, but non-natives didn't see it again until American settlers arrived in the 1800s. Early explorers saw it as a wasteland and a barrier to westward expansion, but by the time of John Wesley Powell's famous Colorado River expedition in 1869, he and scientists of the time recognized its geological singularity and value as a natural wonder. Theodore Roosevelt later called it "the one great site which every American should see." He designated it a national monument in 1908, and it became a national park in 1919.
Today, just as in ancient times, the canyon is so much more than just a spectacle. It is a world all its own waiting to be explored. Beneath the rim are infinite microcosms of environment perched on the edge of precipitous cliffs, poised at the interface of fractured rock and flowing water, placed at the paradox of harsh desert and lifeblood river.
Overlooking the Grand Canyon from the top quite literally only scratches the surface of this breathtaking landscape. Not everyone wants to go deeper, but whether venturing below the rim or not, the national park offers endless possibilities, from an afternoon of sightseeing to a lifetime of adventure. Use this guide to plan your trip and maximize your experience in Grand Canyon National Park.
Most people who visit the Grand Canyon only see it from the South Rim simply because it is easily accessible from the interstate and open year round, unlike the North Rim. Thus, South Rim has the most popular viewpoints, trails, and other attractions. There is also a free shuttle service to aid parking and transportation. As opposed to North Rim, it is the better choice for those seeking convenience, roadside overlooks, and lots of options for activities like dining, entertainment, and museums. It is also the better destination for hikers who want to explore below the rim, because there are numerous route options.
The South Rim has many named overlooks that are easily accessible from the road. You could spend a whole day seeing them all. Here are the top recommendations, organized from east to west.
Western Grand Canyon Village, reserved through concessioner Xanterra:
Eastern Grand Canyon Village, reserved through concessioner Delaware North:
Additional hotels and lodges are located just south of the national park in the town of Tusayan, and others further away in Valle. More information on lodging in and around Grand Canyon can be found here.
This is the park's other half, but it is visited by far fewer people. It is only open from May 15 to October 15, and it is quite remote compared to the South Rim. Driving between the two rims takes about 4.5 hours, and the North Rim is 3 hours from the closest interstate. Lodging and camping options are also more limited. For those with the time and motivation, however, this region of the park is the most rewarding because of its thinner crowds, cool summer temperatures, amazing hiking along the rim, and scenic driving through forests and meadows of the Kaibab Plateau.
Hiking the Grand Canyon is a feat attracting challengers from all over the world. Very few landscapes deal with such steepness and sheer scale as the Grand Canyon. From casual hikers to overnight trippers to endurance athletes, everyone can find satisfaction here, and the arena is incomparable for scenic attraction. Preparation, caution, and discretion are essential because of the difficult environment. Terrain is not the only source of extremes here. Heat, cold, wind, and thunderstorms are all to be contended with depending on the season. Here are some basic tips for hiking and backpacking, but we recommend reading our thorough guide How to Hike the Grand Canyon: Tips for beginners and experts.
All camping below the rim requires a backcountry permit from the national park. These are available from the Backcountry Information Center on the South Rim or online, and in most cases they must be reserved in advance. There are a certain number of last-minute permits available for Corridor Zone campgrounds, but these can only be obtained at the Backcountry Information Center in person within one day of when you plan to start your hike. The fee is $10, plus $8 per person per night.
The most popular campgrounds are along the corridor trails of Bright Angel and North Kaibab. South Kaibab has no campgrounds, but other campgrounds are available elsewhere. At-large camping is also permitted throughout most areas of the canyon, but the general location must be specified on your permit.
Corridor Zone campgrounds all have designated sites, maintained trails, good signage, purified water stations, toilets, and ranger stations. They are as follows:
Threshold Zone campgrounds have designated sites, but unmaintained campgrounds, untreated and scarce/seasonal water sources, pit toilets nearby, and no other services. There are also Primitive Zone and Wild Zone camping areas for advanced hikers on complicated routes, which can be utilized with backcountry permits. Consult the Backcountry Information Office for more about these camping opportunities.
The corridor trails (Bright Angel, South Kaibab, North Kaibab) can be traveled by mule, animal aids that have been a staple of Grand Canyon exploration since Westerners first began trekking to the bottom. If you prefer to see the Grand Canyon with one of the famous sure-footed mules, you can book a trip from the South Rim to stay overnight at Phantom Ranch in the bottom, or a short out-and-back day trip on North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim. Mule rides are best booked in advance.
The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is indisputably America’s most iconic wilderness whitewater expedition. Lore from “The Grand” pervades river culture around the world, and many a boatman dreams of his/her chance to row it. The rapids that thunder through Grand Canyon are legendary, so much so that they have their own rating of difficulty that is used nowhere else in the world (1-10 as opposed to I-V). Of course, the rapids are not the only highlight of a river trip.
Floating through the canyon is like a lifetime in an entirely different world sunk beneath the rim of reality and encapsulated in surreal beauty. The Grand Canyon is mind-bogglingly huge, and viewing it from the rim does hardly any justice to its full majesty. So many intricacies can only be realized from river level—by hiking into surprisingly expansive side canyons, squeezing into narrow slots, paddling turquoise tributary waters, and gazing up at massive rock walls. Experiencing the canyon from the bottom is not reserved for elite boatmen only, however. Commercial operations allow any paying customer to take a trip down the river, and an annual weighted lottery awards permits to private boaters to make the journey under their own guidance.
Elevation ranges from 1,200 feet at Lake Mead to nearly 9,000 feet on the Kaibab Plateau. This drastic gradient creates a startling diversity of environments that rarely occur in such proximity. There can be snowfall among spruce and fir on the North Rim while simultaneously the sun bakes on yuccas and cacti on the canyon floor. Most visitors will not encounter such extremes in one trip here, but all should be aware that the climate is far from the predictably sunny Arizona desert that one might imagine. Day/night fluctuations in temperature are often drastic in this dry air at high elevation, so expect to sweat during the day and bundle up at night.
Summer sees the most visitors but is not necessarily the best time to visit. High temperatures on the South Rim often reach 90 degrees and can exceed 110 in the bottom of the canyon. The North Rim stays cooler at its higher elevation, but the sun is still intense. Thunder storms are a constant threat during the monsoon season that stretches from July to September and brings rain, hail, wind, and lightning. Plan your day starting early to avoid midday heat and afternoon storms.
Autumn is a great season at the Grand Canyon, when the weather cools and dries. Nights can dip to freezing on the rim, but for the most part temperatures are comfortable. Weather can still change suddenly, however, with late monsoon or early winter patterns popping up occasionally.
Winter is a highly underrated time to visit the Grand Canyon. When the winter storms occur, snow, ice, and wind are more intense than many visitors to Arizona would expect. The majority of days are crisp, clear, and sunny, however, and snowy vistas are some of the grandest views to be had. The North Rim is not open at all from mid-October to mid-May because roads remain snowbound. The South Rim is more mild and open all year, but trails are usually icy for the duration of winter. Spikes or crampons are recommended for hiking below the rim.
Spring is another great time to visit, with mild temperatures and many sunny days, though the weather can be especially unpredictable during this transitions seasons. The South Rim gets intermittent wintry storms into March and even April. The North Rim can be snowy well into May. Spring is generally the windiest time of year throughout the canyon.
Dogs are not allowed on most trails in Grand Canyon National Park, and are forbidden anywhere below the rim. This rule is to avoid disturbing native wildlife, which would be deterred by dogs, and to preserve the experience of other human visitors to the canyon. Dogs are allowed on the Rim Trail and along all paved roads and walkways in the park as long as you always clean up after your pet. They must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet and never left unattended, even inside a vehicle. Summer heat can kill, so consider using the kennel service in Grand Canyon Village if you want to hike below the rim.
Havasu Falls and the other photo-famous cascades on Havasu Creek (Mooney Falls and Beaver Falls) are part of Grand Canyon, but are not within the national park. They are the homeland of the Havasupai people, an indigenous community that still lives in a village below the canyon rim. They subsist on these blue-green waters that flow from natural springs as their ancestors have done for generations. Access to this mystical world is granted by the tribe. Permits to embark on the difficult 9.5-mile hike to camp near the waterfalls are available by reservation only and for a fee.